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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Naming East European Art

confrontations30 June 2021

The third in this series of Confrontations online seminars held on 23 June 2021 dealt with the recurrent question of the choice of terminology in naming artistic phenomena in Eastern European art. The central issue of what is to be gained, and what lost, in using art labels developed in the context of Western art history to refer to art practices and trends that emerged in the specific and different conditions of Actually Existing Socialism was explored with reference to a range of terminological variations associated with particular art geographies. The potential for multi-directional terminological borrowings emerged in discussion as a strategy to complicate the writing of comparative art history, by pluralising and rendering more heterogenous accounts of global art movements.

In their introduction, Maja and Reuben Fowkes brought up the ‘suitcase model’ of art transfers, pointing to the frequency with which the spread of artistic paradigms to Eastern European art scenes has been explained in art history through artist travel to Western art centres, often by literally referring to the exhibition catalogues of new art trends that they brought back in their luggage.  Taking pop art as a case in point, the complexity of the actual development of Eastern European versions of global art movements was explored, from the impossibility of reducing pop influences to a single source and the extent to which East European pop responded to changing social and technological conditions, to the ways in which artists turned the language of pop in critical or anti-capitalist directions. They also showed how recent survey exhibitions, both in the region and internationally, have sought to varying degrees to expand the understanding of pop art by reframing it as a global rather than Western phenomenon.

This week’s guest speaker was Miško Šuvaković, whose reflected on the methodologies of East European art history, including analysing with hindsight the approach taken in his co-edited book Impossible Histories: Historic Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918–1991, which was published in 2003. He noted that while at the time the histories of the neo-avant-garde were ‘impossible’ because they were almost completely ignored, today the situation is reversed. He also explained that the focus on Yugoslavia rather than national art history met the expectations of the publishers, whose wanted a book ‘about New York, not the Bronx.’ By drawing attention to the way in which the authorities balanced Soviet and United States influence by alternating between visiting exhibitions from the two blocs, he emphasised through his presentation the hybridization of artistic phenomena in the Yugoslav art space.

Confrontations team member and leader of the seminar Alina Serban set out to explore how after the demise of the communist world in Eastern Europe, the writing of its own art history was fuelled by the desire of local and international scholars to find umbrella terms, some retrospectively applied, that would offer a readable translation of the processes of art-making in the region. She drew attention to the danger that by adopting the universality of Western idioms, in order to create a theoretical common ground, specific national traditions and self-historicizations could be overlooked, arguing for the coexistence of a multiplicity of readings of art terms. The question of balance also came to the fore here, between interpretations that take into account local conceptualisations and the those that enable the art of the region to become part of a global art historical discourse.

Among the Confrontations participants, Gregor Taul’s response pinpointed a series of terms that were current in the Soviet Baltics, but that have mostly fallen out of use in the post-communist period. These included the notion of the ‘synthesis of the arts’, which was regularly called for in party meetings, and ‘monumental decorative arts’, which had different connotations to public art, and ‘environment’, which carried also the sense of site-specific art. Dessislava Dimova’s intervention focused on conceptual art, and contrasting attitudes to the term in Bulgaria in the 1980s and early 1990s, pointing out that a lot of artists ‘refused to recognise their art through such terms’ and developed alternative formulations such as ‘end forms’ or ‘new forms.’ The debate then turned to how the discussion around so-called Western terms is changing, as new terms emerge outside of Western art centres and travel in all directions and the old terms are reshaped to encompass the plurality of non-Western art practices, while making visible their interconnections.

Artists’ Unions under Socialism

confrontations16 June 2021

The second of the online meetings organised for the Confrontations group held on 9 June 2021, the seminar on Artists’ Unions dealt with one of the key institutional structures of socialist artworlds. In their introduction, Maja and Reuben Fowkes laid out some of the decisive moments in the labyrinthine infrastructural histories of artists unions under socialism: the transformations of the immediate post-war period, the consolidation of communist power across the Eastern Bloc circa 1948-9, and the readjustments in the wake of Stalin’s death. They traced the effects of these turning points on socialist artworlds through the case of the Hungarian Artists’ Union, discussing the significance of its reduction from a from a mass organisation on the model of a trades union to a guild-like association of between 100 and 300 members under party control, but also its role as a liberalising force and representative of artists’ interests during the course of de-Stalinization, since by the mid-1950s the union was already campaigning on behalf of its members to the Ministry of Culture to demand the restoration and building of galleries, an increase in the number of art publications, more studios and foreign exchanges with Western countries, as well as a monthly stipend for painters. Further questions raised included the extent to which the new layers of socialist art bureaucracy established around 1960, such as the founding of the Studio of Young Artists, reflected a shift to more arms-length methods of political management, the strategies devised by artists to negotiate the structures of Actually Existing Artworlds of Socialism and the extent to which parallels can be identified with the role of artists unions in other East European countries, notwithstanding the specific historical context of the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule.

The guest lecture by Caterina Preda was based on her extensive research into the archives of the Romanian artists’ union, whose neglected institutional histories are vividly symbolised by an image she shared of a cupboard overflowing with disorderly dossiers. She also drew attention to the tendency of the artists’ union to adopt the quantitative methods of industrial or agricultural production under five year plans to measure artistic production in numbers of artworks per year. Attempting to quantify artistic production using such starkly materialist parameters seems slightly comic, but is it really so different from the statistics produced by the capitalist artworld to measure the rising value of artworks at auction? Emphasising the role of the artists’ union as an intermediary between artists and the state, she also laid out the complexity of the relationship between the artists’ union as such, and parallel and overlapping institutions with a more direct role in the commissioning of artworks. The question was raised as to whether the role of the artists’ union in promoting a nationalist version of socialism from the 1960s was specific to the Romanian case, or whether a renewed focus on national cultures was characteristic of the process of de-Stalinization across the Eastern Bloc. It also became clear from the discussion that further research is needed to establish the extent to which during the last decade of the socialist system such state art structures were able to function with relative autonomy.

Member of the core team of Confrontations and leader of this session, Tomasz Załuski, questioned in his intervention into the discussion certain ‘stereotypical assumptions’ about the functioning of artists’ unions. Namely, it is widely assumed that they were part of a regime of artistic control, created an opportunistic social contract with artists who collaborated in exchange for symbolic and material gains, and that they were characterised in their artistic outlook by traditionalism and conservatism. He proposed instead that a closer examination of in particular the Polish case reveals the pragmatism of artists’ unions in defending their members’ interests, the ‘positivity’ and ‘normality’ that such structures created for artists to work within, and their role as ‘agents of modernization.’ Rather than a one-sided view of the role of artists’ unions, he suggested that they should be positioned between the poles of ideology and pragmatism, autonomy and submissiveness, and conservative and progressive values and practices.

Amongst the responses by Confrontations research group members, Juliane Debeusscher brought up the complex situation around the role of East European artists’ unions in enabling the participation of artists in the exhibition and competition of the Joan Miró Prize in Barcelona in the 1970s. Asja Mandić spoke about the particular case of the Yugoslav artists’ union, which was established in 1947, after the founding of the artists’ unions of several of the federal republics of Yugoslavia. Playing a significant role until 1951, when the pendulum swung back towards decentralisation, the Yugoslav artists’ union notably produced four issues of the magazine Umetnost, whose pages reveal the trajectory of the search for a common artistic identity. Johana Lomová drew attention to the differences in the balance of female and male membership in applied arts and fine arts unions, raising the issue of the extent to which the relative exclusion of women from the more prestigious branches of the fine arts reflected the influence of patriarchal mentalities and power structures. Corina Apostol asked what kind of theoretical approach is called for in the study of the archives of socialist artists’ unions. Magdalena Moskalewicz shared further insights into the Polish artists’ union and its role in, for example, producing the national survey shows of the Stalinist period. She also put forward the notion that in contrast to countries like Hungary, there was no ‘doublespeak’ in the Polish artworld after 1955, when the official and unofficial artworlds coalesced. What became clear over the course of a lively afternoon of online discussion was how far the history of the artist unions of particular countries still awaits systematic research, as well as the potential of comparative approach in establishing the significance of their institutional forms and their complex relation to other bureaucratic bodies of the socialist artworld.

Exhibition Diplomacy

confrontations28 May 2021

The Confrontations group came together on 26 May 2021 for the first in a series of three online sessions focusing on themes and topics that cut across the geographical and temporal boundaries of Eastern European art history. Since we last met in Poland in early February 2020, when the global pandemic had yet to make itself felt in most countries, our twenty-strong international group of post-doctoral researchers and academics has come together for a number of public events and more social get-togethers. This meeting was an opportunity for more intensive critical and comparative discussions, as a stepping-stone for another live seminar pencilled in for the autumn.

The topic of the seminar was Diplomatic Exhibitions, considered as a branch of cultural diplomacy that flourished during the Cold War and approached by the participants from a distinctly non-West-centric perspective. Maja and Reuben Fowkes introduced the thematic focus and pointed to two decisive moments in the Cold War history of exhibition diplomacy. In the early post-war period, the United States despatched to Eastern Europe, and then abruptly recalled, the propagandistic exhibition Advancing American Art, while the advance across the exhibition halls of the Eastern Bloc of exhibitions of Soviet Socialist Realism signalled the temporary retreat of more pluralistic art styles. At the end of the 1950s, during the first wave of détente, the Cold War mechanisms of cultural diplomacy were formalised, with the Americans sending a mix of contemporary abstraction and historical realism to Moscow to foster mutual understanding, while the Polish exhibition at the first and only biennial of socialist countries indicated a reversal of artistic influence between Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The guest speaker at this meeting was art historian Mária Orišková from the University of Trnava, Slovakia, with a paper titled ‘From Hanoi and Havana to Paris and New York: Czecho-Slovak Cultural-Diplomatic Exhibitions during the Cold War.’ Making the distinction between the ‘Trojan horse’ strategy of ‘soft power’ and the more ‘altruistic’ approach of cultural diplomacy, her presentation illuminated the variety of exhibition trajectories of Czech, Slovak and Czechoslovak art in the post-war period. These ranged from the export of more marketable ‘national treasure’ shows to Western museums to more distant exhibition journeys to express ‘communist co-belonging’ with decolonising and revolutionary movements in the global South, based on the potential of a shared socialist vision that transcended other forms of difference.

Member of the core team and leader of the session on Diplomatic Exhibitions, Pavlína Morganová, then responded to Orišková’s paper, making the point that the ‘art war started in Prague in 1947.’ She contrasted the indifference to the poorly-attended exhibition Advancing American Art with the dozens of polemical responses to the exhibition of Four Soviet Painters that followed shortly afterwards, during the relative freedom of the period before the communist seizure of power in 1948. It was at such early Cold War exhibitions that the model of the diplomatic exhibition, with its political speeches and carefully curated displays, was established.

Further responses from members of the Confrontations group included a case study presented by Agata Pietrasik of Polish participation at the First Paris Biennial of Youth in 1959, in which the inclusion of abstract works, including an axial figure by Jan Lebenstein, gave rise to dramatically different critical responses in Poland and internationally. Daniel Véri spoke about the Great Book Theft of 1959 that saw hundreds of publications from an exhibition of French book illustration in Budapest disappear. Hana Buddeus shared insights into an even earlier example of exhibition diplomacy through the obscure history of the exhibition Stalingrad-Prague held in 1945, with Czech artists involved in the exhibition design, which included a destroyed German tank. Ieva Astahovska’s contribution dealt with the exhibition history of the show Twenty Realists from Soviet Latvia during the 1970s. Sandra Bradvić took the opportunity to ask Mária Orišková a wider question about her work on the curatorial histories of Eastern Europe, to which our guest speaker replied by drawing attention to the many formats of exhibitions and their multiple intersections across cultural diplomacy and curatorial concepts, complicating the nation-centric art historical narratives of modernism.